Medieval music: a quick guide to the middle ages

medievaldancers110r_0The middle ages covers a period of a thousand years – and yet much of its music-making is a mystery to us. We’re not completely in the dark, though, so the aim of this article is to give a broad beginner’s guide to the principles of secular medieval music. When were the middle ages? How do we know what the music sounded like? What were the earliest surviving songs? What was its dance music like? Why does medieval music sound so different to today’s? How did medieval musicians harmonise?

This article features 4 illustrative videos of medieval music and several links to further articles (click on blue text).

When were the middle ages?

The mediaeval or medieval period, or the middle ages, covers a huge stretch of time, from 476 CE, following the fall of the Roman Empire, to the start of the renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries, so that’s around a thousand years.

Francesco Petrarcha or Petrarch, 1304–1374, one of the creators, possibly the original creator, of the idea of an Italian renaissance, painted by Andrea del Castagno, c. 1421–1457.
Francesco Petrarcha or Petrarch, 1304–1374,
one of the creators, possibly the original creator,
of the idea of an Italian renaissance,
painted by Andrea del Castagno, c. 1421–1457.

Some historians have latterly taken to splitting the medieval period in two: the dark ages until the 10th century; and the middle ages from the 11th century. This split is an ahistorical view which ignores how the term middle ages was originally conceived by those who minted it. More oddly, proponents of the dark/middle ages split will often equate the dark ages with the period before the Norman invasion of 1066, when the language in England was Old English, and the middle ages with the period between the Norman conquest and the renaissance, during which the language evolved into Middle English, as if the terms dark ages, middle ages and renaissance were based upon events in England: the historical reality is that the terms arose from an understanding of events in Italy.

It was Italians of the 14th and 15th century, primarily Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch, Leonardo Bruni and Flavio Biondo, who defined themselves and their generation as bringing about a renaissance or rebirth of classical Roman and Greek wisdom. Thus, for the people of the self-defined Italian renaissance who delineated the middle ages, the term meant precisely and explicitly the same as the dark ages: it was a whole millennium of cultural darkness in the middle period between the fall of the Roman Empire and Italian culture’s rediscovery of its treasures.

The Italian idea of this rediscovery of classical Roman and Greek art and wisdom was demonstrably false: in reality, surviving manuscripts show that writers of the so-called middle ages were very well aware of classical Rome and Greece. For example, a manuscript of 1289 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 15158) includes copies of Catonis disticha (Cato’s couplets), an anonymous book of 3rd or 4th century proverbial wisdom; Liber Theodoli (Book of Theodulus), a 9th century dialogue or debate between classical myth and Christian truth; Remedia Amoris (Cures for Love) by Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE); and Psychomachia (psychomachy is a conflict between soul and body) by the Roman Christian poet, Prudentius, early 5th century.

Nonetheless, the idea of the renaissance took hold of Italy before then spreading internationally through Europe. This gradual adoption of the idea makes it impossible to give a precise date for the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the renaissance, so a nominal latest date of 1400, 1450 or 1470 is often given.

The recovery of medieval music

Dominican-blackyfriar-monksMuch of medieval secular music is a mystery. Most people were illiterate, therefore most music was not written down but passed on and learned by ear and so, of course, we’ve lost it. The music that was written down was most often church music as it was largely clergy who could write. This ecclesiastical music is important in itself, but its predominance in surviving manuscripts gives a partial view of music-making.

Medieval music is not immediately accessible for a modern musician. There were different systems of musical notation, none of which indicated precise rhythm until the 12th century. Square notation is now the best known system developed in this period, and once you know square notation some of the music is easy to read. At times, though, it wasn’t written very accurately, or was written with a poor pen and so had vague or indecipherable note values, which is adequate if you know what it’s supposed to sound like, which they did, but we don’t.

It is extremely rare for us to have any idea what the intended instrument was to accompany a voice (if at all) or to play for dances, so we have to make our own choices from the scant available information and our own sense of what sounds right. (For more detail on this question, see the article here.)

There are some treasure troves of medieval music. One of the most notable is the Cantigas de Santa María, a book with 420 songs in praise of the Virgin Mary, compiled during the reign of Alfonso X, “The Wise”, 1221-1284, who was King of eight regions in modern day Spain and one in Portugal. During his reign, Alfonso composed, compiled and edited a large number of books, with subjects ranging from art and literature to scientific texts translated into Castillian from the Arabic originals. The melodies of the Cantigas were adapted from sacred sources or popular melodies from both sides of the Pyrenees, including some derived from troubadour songs in Provençal and others that have striking affinities with Arab music. One of the four Cantigas manuscripts, compiled 1257–1283, is beautifully illustrated with pictures of musicians, giving us much information about the instruments of the day, and its music notation is admirably clear.

Instruments illustrated in the Cantigas de Santa María, 1257–1283 (click to see larger version).
Top row, left to right: unknown; double shawms; harps; pipes and tabors; bagpipes.
Bottom row, left to right: simfonies; rebab and oud; bladder pipes; bagpipe; psalteries.

The Cantigas were heavily influenced by the lyrics and music of the troubadours, the poets and singers of Occitania, what is now southern France. From the late 11th century to the end of the 13th century, the troubadours developed several styles of song, most famously fin’amor, refined or perfect love. Their influence was widespread and considerable, extending well beyond Occitania and long after the lifetimes of troubadour writers.

The earliest songs in English

Secular medieval music in English is completely unknown to us until the first half of the 13th century, when Mirie it is (Merry it is) was written down, a song complaining about the cold winter weather. It is well to remember when listening to this song how dangerous this season was in the 13th century: inadequate storage of winter provisions meant starvation.

Click picture to play video – opens in new window.
Mirie it is while sumer ilast, dated to the first half of the 13th century, performed on medieval harp
by Ian Pittaway. The now-standard version doesn’t follow what was written in the original sole source,
so if you’re familiar with the song from modern recordings, many of the notes, and indeed the opening
word, “Mirie”, won’t be what you’re used to hearing. The manuscript clearly indicates the words
in this recording, and most of the notes – some are missing and are inserted editorially.
To read more about interpretation of this song, click here.

This is closely followed by Sumer is icumen in (Summer has come in) from around 1250, another song about the weather, but on a happier note, rejoicing in the sights and sounds of summer: the ewe bleating and the buck farting (honestly, I’m not making this up). Sumer is icumen in is two songs in one, since the text includes a Christian song, Perspice christicola, to the same tune.

Click picture to play video – opens in new window.
Ian Pittaway sings all six parts of Sumer is icumen in, including the repeated
cuckoo call changed by a later scribe. To read more, click here.

Medieval instrumental and dance music

Male dancing gittern player playing for five dancing women. MS. Bodl. 264, f. 97v, 1338-1410.
© Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, reproduced under Creative Commons licence CC-BY-NC 4.0.

No clear medieval dance instructions survive, only hints and fragments. The earliest complete choreography is from 15th century Italy, well past the beginning of the Italian renaissance. (To read more about this, click here.) Outside Italy, in England, for example, the earliest surviving choreography is in the Gresley manuscript of 1480–1520, found in Ashford, Derbyshire in 1984. Since we know so little about how medieval dances were performed, we have to bring our own artistic and creative sense to bear, interpreting the clues found in iconography and brief scattered references in writing.

In terms of form, there were two kinds of medieval instrumental music (whether danced or not): either each section had different material but with the same open and close ending (the equivalent of today’s first and second time bars), as we find in la rotta, the French estampie, the royal dance, and the ductia; or sections were cumulative, built up by including a previous section and adding new material, followed by an open and close ending, as in the trotto, saltarello, and the Italian istampitta (estampie). An example of the latter is Ghaetta, from British Library Add. 29987, c. 1400. With x as an open ending and y as a close ending, it is in the complex form: ABCx ABCy; DECx DECy; FECx FECy; GBCx GBCy. The nota is the only exception. Parisian music theorist, Johannes de Grocheio (or Grocheo, or Jean de Grouchy), wrote Ars musicae (Art of music), in c. 1300, in which he described the nota as having four double puncta (sections), indicating that each section was to be repeated, though it lacks an open and close ending. It is, he wrote, “either a form of ductia or an incomplete estampie”.

Click the picture to play the video.
Two part instrumental, probably a ductia,
British Library Harley 978, folio 8v-9r, c. 1261–65,
played by Ian Pittaway on citole and gittern.

In the video above, Ian Pittaway on citole and gittern uses medieval-style plectrums, made from antler and a gut string, to play a polyphonic instrumental from British Library Harley 978, folio 8v-9r, c. 1261-65. In the manuscript, this piece is untitled. It partially fits the description of a ductia given by Johannes de Grocheio in c. 1300. He describes the ductia as an instrumental – “it lacks letter and text” – to be danced to – “they arouse the spirit of man to move decorously according to the art which they call dancing”. The ductia is light and joyful – “the [liturgical] sequence is sung in the manner of a ductia, so that it may lead and give joy”, composed in two voice polyphony – “The Pater noster is a cantus having two parts in the manner of a punctus [point, i.e. section] of a ductia”. Contrary to the piece in Harley 978, which has 6 puncta, Grocheio states that “the number of puncta in a ductia they placed at 3 … There are also some ductia having 4 puncta such as the ductia Pierron.” However, on this point, Grocheio is probably not a reliable witness, as he puts the number of puncta in an estampie at 6 or 7, whereas the estampies written in the Manuscrit du Roi contemporaneous with Grocheio have variously 4, 5, 6 and 7 puncta. It is therefore still likely that the Harley 978 piece is a ductia.

It is commonly asserted in modern commentaries that the estampie was a dance. However, as this article explains, no primary medieval source states this, and indeed the medieval evidence is that the estampie was for listening, not dancing. The estampie was marked out from other musical forms by having sections of varying lengths, as we hear in the example below: La Sexte estampie Real (The Sixth Royal estampie) from Manuscrit du Roi, a manuscript of troubadour songs written c. 1250, with instrumental pieces such as this estampie added c. 1300.

Click the picture to play the video.

Why does medieval music sound so different to today’s?

There are several reasons why medieval music has such a distinctive sound which is different to modern music.

The instruments were different. Strings were made of gut (sheep’s intestines) or wire (brass, iron, bronze, silver or gold), not steel or nylon as today’s strings tend to be. Many instruments, such as the simfony, citole and the gittern, have no modern equivalents. Even instruments which we still play versions of today – the harp and the recorder, for example, and the modern oboe, which is descended from the shawm – were made to different specifications resulting in a quite different tonal quality.

Jan van Eyck (1395-1441), detail from The Fountain of Life showing
Jan van Eyck (1395-1441), detail from The Fountain of Life showing psaltery, lute and bray harp.

The scales or modes were different. Briefly, all modern major and minor scales work to the same musical principles, with identical gaps between the 8 notes of the scale, but pitched differently: so C major and D major sound the same, except that D major starts a tone higher. It is not so with modes. The modes of medieval music lack sharps and flats, which means that the relationship between notes for a mode starting on D (dorian) is different to a mode starting on E (phrygian). In addition, each medieval mode has a returning note which plays a key role in the melody, this note known as the tenor, tuba, dominant, repercussa, or reciting note; and each mode has its own characteristic figures or melodic clusters of notes. Add to this the fact that some modes started and ended in the same place, known as authentic modes, and others started on one note and finished on another, known as plagal modes, and we see that the medieval conception of sound was unlike ours.

What this means in practical terms is that a medieval psaltery or harp is potentially a problem for a player of modern music since they are diatonic, lacking the permanent availability of sharps and flats. But the medieval soundworld was different, and a diatonic instrument was perfectly suited to medieval diatonic music. (A more detailed examination of medieval modes, and the circumstances under which flats and sharps were added to modes, can be found by clicking here.)

Medieval polyphony

The harmonies were different, too. Today ‘harmony’ usually means a single lead melody line with other notes complementing it to form supporting chords. Medieval harmony didn’t work like this, so much so that we should give it a different name: polyphony, meaning many voices, with each voice often having elements of horizontal independence as well as vertical consonance.

Medieval music was (i) monophony, a single melody line; or (ii) a melody with a drone; or (iii) organum, which variously meant a melody with a second line that tracks the first with longer notes, or with a parallel octave, fourth or fifth, or two parts in contrary motion, or an additional line with fast-running notes; or, (iv) as with Sumer is icumen in, a melody on top of a pes (foot), ground or ground bass, a short repeating phrase which continues through the whole piece. Don’t let the term ‘ground bass’ give you the wrong idea: this wasn’t ‘a bass part’ in the modern sense of the pitch range soprano, alto, tenor and bass (SATB), but a repeated phrase to ‘ground’ the music. Sumer is icumen in is the earliest surviving example of an English round, where voices sing the same line but start at different times, meaning that no one sings ‘lead’ and each individual’s line is as important as the other. For a detailed and practical explanation of medieval forms of polyphony, click here.

Until the end of the middle ages, polyphonic parts were pitched close together, their notes sometimes inter-weaving. We hear this in the three pieces in the video below: Miro genere (By a wondrous birth), Astripotens famulos (Kind ruler of the stars), and Mater dei (Mother of God), each sung in two or three voices as in the manuscript (Lambeth Palace MS 457), then played polyphonically on citole or gittern. 

Click the picture to play the video.
Three pieces unique to Lambeth Palace MS 357, c. 1200, each sung then played on citole or gittern.

It wasn’t until the compositions of the English musician John Dunstaple (or Dunstable) in the 15th century that we have voices pitched wide apart, a new practice which was hugely influential and became known in Europe as “the English countenance”, marking the beginning of what was to be a post-medieval, renaissance style of music.


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Medieval music: a quick guide to the middle ages

  • 6th November 2021 at 4:04 pm

    The biggest thought I had while reading this article was how much of an influence religion would have on medieval music. It did not surprise me that there were religious songs (note the Cantigas de Santa Maria,) but there were also quite a few secular songs as well. While reading about the medieval era and the divide between different religions and the power of religion in general, secularism often fell low on the ladder.
    I tried to compare these songs back to our original medieval readings, but could not. Our readings often put God or gods above secular culture, in general. However, these songs only had one thing in common that I could see, which was to keep people stable, calm, and joyful at heart. While the clergy was the organization that wrote down most of the music, both religious and secular music kept people entertained and calm during harsh winters and wonderful dances. There seemed to be no comparison, or higher or lower stature, holding God or gods above the “secular.” This music brought people together.

    • 6th November 2021 at 4:54 pm

      Hello, Grace, and thank you for your comment.

      It makes sense to divide songs into religious and secular in the modern world, presupposing that one might believe or disbelieve in God (or any particular god, depending on the culture). In the medieval period, it didn’t make sense in the same way, as belief in the Christian God was presupposed by Christians, hence the idea that Jews and Moors were somehow being perverse by believing differently, deliberately denying The Truth in Christian terms.

      The lack of a medieval division between religious and secular had other ramifications. While there were, of course, songs in praise of the Virgin and songs in praise of a woman who was an object of love, these two genres were not entirely separate. In the latter type of song, typified by the troubadours and trouveres, religious belief was still presupposed, and indeed the same language was used to praise the Virgin and praise an earthly woman (as demonstrated in this article and this article

      All the best.


      • 6th October 2023 at 2:50 am

        How can I. Find the. Book of Ian Christians that presents the development of classical music through the centuries from medieval times till today?

        • 6th October 2023 at 8:42 am

          Hello, Constantine.

          I’m unclear what you mean by the Book of Ian Christians and I don’t know of a book that shows the development of music across the centuries. I would imagine that would not be a book, but a library! I would be very wary of the idea that classical music is the end point that medieval music led to, as each era of music needs to be seen in its own terms, not as an earlier version of what came later. For example, modern harmony is completely different to medieval polyphony and a modern guitar is not a version of any medieval instrument.

          All the best.



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